The Sun has finally prised the hapless Sharon Shoesmith out of Haringey. Today’s front page splash comes two days after ‘scrounger’ Karen Matthews was reported as being forced to work in prison.
It has been a good few weeks for public hatred. As well as Shoesmith and Matthews, we have had Brand and Ross. The papers have been providing us with a steady stream of stories about greedy bankers and self indulgent public service workers. Only this morning we heard about a PCT (Blackpool) that could not afford a prosthetic limb for a one-legged child, but could allegedly spend tens of thousands of pounds on an office party.
As I wrote in an earlier blog, the economic downturn has been accompanied by greater public moralizing. While there is greater outrage toward those who break both the explicit and tacit rules of ‘fair play’, it may even on one level promote social cohesion and accountability. But we need to remember that blaming and vilification, while deep-seated are probably not very healthy emotions. Remember Roy Baumeister and Philip Zimbardo? No, they are not serial killers of obscene DJs but social psychologists. Baumeister showed in his study, ‘Evil: inside human cruelty and aggression’ that not only is the truth in cases of allegedly ‘pure evil’ often more complex than first appears, but that the perpetrators of evil almost always offered what were to them plausibly benign motives. (Might even Karen Matthew claims that she was driven to get the £50k to produce a better life for her other children?)
Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison experiment showed that if almost any of us are put in an intense situation which encourages sadistic behaviour, we will soon get in touch with our inner sadist.
Hating people is like eating sugar. We get a quick high but over time our faculties become dulled and our judgements weaker.
As we begin to imagine the post-pandemic world, we need to challenge our use of old metaphors to allow for new narratives and better futures to emerge.
With the post-Christmas resolutions looming, when we try to address the worst of our seasonal over-indulgences, the question remains: how can we give up bad habits for good?